It's not like I'd actually grown up with a garage to begin with. Back in 1972, when my family made the big move to a newly constructed suburban contemporary, the first thing my father, a professional artist, did was to remove both overhead doors from the attached two-car garage and replace them with sliding glass ones. Add in a couple of space heaters, a few strategically placed throw rugs and some snazzy vertical blinds and, voilà, the space that could have been housing the Chevy Caprice wagon had become a comfortable and inviting studio for painting, welding and sculpting.
So a few years back, when I'd finally had enough of my kids' backpacks, soccer cleats and sweatshirts overrunning the living room floor (our cozy 1925 Colonial has no entryway whatsoever), I briefly toyed with the idea of putting on an addition to gain the mudroom of my dreams. But after consulting with Chris Dietzen, a draftsman/designer at Marling Lumber, and Kris Johnson Woodworking, the general contractor we'd previously worked with on a kitchen remodel, I was reminded that we weren't actually parking in our tiny near-west-side garage anyway.
Eight weeks, solid framing, a new exterior side door and some freshly laid tile later, the back third of our garage was converted into a fully furnished, functioning entryway that blends seamlessly with the interior of the rest of the house. Finally, our umbrellas, muddy boots and the dog's leash all have a place they can call home.
We didn't really need an addition after all, but more of a "subtraction." We just needed to get creative and find a way to borrow from our existing footprint to get the mudroom we were craving.
In this age of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, I propose the addition of a fourth R - Repurpose. Especially when it comes to unfashionable, unnecessary or underutilized interior space.
According to Madison-based interior designer Amy Radspinner, homeowners have always repurposed rooms. "Things happen in people's lives - a couple has a new baby, a kid goes off to college, and all of a sudden the house needs to work in a way that it didn't need to before," she says. "And now, with the green movement, people are realizing that reusing existing space is much easier on the Earth than starting from scratch or building on. That, coupled with the fact that people are having a harder time selling their houses, means they are staying in their homes. So they have to find ways to make sure that the space they've got is functioning the way they want it to."
Radspinner has converted hallways into libraries, has made over extra bedrooms as walk-in closets, and has reinvented basements as "man caves."
"Just as people and families will always evolve," she says, "so will the need for their surrounding space to do the same."
For Coni Morotz, owner of Iconi Interiors, a downtown home furnishings store that features many vintage and refinished pieces, repurposing is a way of life. "Back in the day, when I was on a shoestring budget, I'd take 20 bucks and go to small rural towns to shop their Goodwill stores," she says. "I was always on the lookout for different stuff, things that would set me apart from what everyone else had. When you are repurposing, whether it is furniture or rooms, your place is going to feel a lot more designer-driven and custom."
Morotz had experience repurposing rooms in a home in the Vilas neighborhood. She took her traditional dining room and converted it into a den.
"The living room," says Morotz, "was plenty big enough to be used as both a living room and dining area. We didn't really need another place to eat."
When she and her husband, music engineer Mike Zirkel, decided to downsize late last year from a larger home in Monona to a 1960s Madison ranch, the couple once again set about finding ways to transform the somewhat dated space into a unique home for themselves.
One of the first changes they made was to put up a wall to carve out a separate room from a weird "wing" in the living room.
"This part of the room wasn't really working for us," Morotz says. "It screamed to be a room of its own. Some people might have considered turning it into a regular office, but we wanted more of a work room."
They now use this new repurposed area to refinish whole pieces of furniture to be sold later in the store. And the vintage glass paneled doors on a sliding door system they installed "do a beautiful job of connecting the living room area to our new work room," Morotz adds.
The reconfiguring of existing space in Morotz's house continues into the kitchen, where the former owner had installed two large closets, one housing a washer and dryer, the other a spare fridge.
"We were very excited to open up that first closet and replace the appliances with a cool bar we'd brought with us from our former home" says Morotz. "It was originally a 1950s Philips upright stereo, which we gutted.
"My first inclination is always to see if I can find something used that can be given a new life. It doesn't matter what it is, when I stumble upon an older piece or even a room, I almost always say, 'I can see that as something else.'"
The house also has four bathrooms, more than Morotz and her husband needed. So, in keeping with the spirit of making unnecessary rooms more practical, the couple repurposed the small powder room off the kitchen as a private "lounge" for their two cats, Izzie and Hunter.
"We just threw on a coat of chalkboard paint and carved out a custom cat-sized door," Morotz says. "It's very nice having the litter box in a place that's just for them."
But for folks with more than kids than cats, sometimes more bathrooms are needed - or at least differently configured ones.
While on sabbatical in Madison in 2006-2007, Paula Niedenthal and Markus Brauer, both psychology professors, fell in love with the near-west neighborhood where they were renting. So when the opportunity came in 2011 for them to return from France (where they'd spent more than a decade) to join the UW faculty, they considered themselves lucky to be able to buy not just in the same neighborhood, but on the same street.
While the house had great bones, they knew the number of bathrooms, among other things, was going to be an issue when their four sons were all at home.
But with a little creativity, and the help of Madison-based Trimcraft Builders, they discovered that an upstairs linen closet could be revamped as a stand-alone room for a toilet and tiny sink.
"It's called "les toilettes" in French," Niedenthal says. "And having one is very practical and common in France. Now if one boy is showering in the original bathroom, which no longer has a toilet, he doesn't need to give up his sense of privacy. And at the same time, no one is left standing outside the door jumping up and down on one leg waiting for the shower to be done."
"It's all about prioritizing what your needs are," says Radspinner, "and you can't have it all. But repurposing space is one of the first things I look for when meeting with a client. Why spend all that money on an addition if you can use a room better in the first place?"
Radspinner looks at the Wisconsin climate, too. "In Wisconsin, we spend so much time indoors. The interior of our homes needs to work as hard as possible."
And she claims, not surprisingly, that what many of her clients want are mudrooms.
Maybe even more than garages.